King’s realization was the need for even greater forces to be recruited into the movement to achieve social transformation within the United States. By the end of his life, King recognized the coercive power of other forms of disobedience. In planning a Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., he called for extralegal protests not aimed at undoing unjust laws but in the name of political and economic demands that represented the interests of the majority. In Memphis, during the sanitation workers strike in 1968, he called for a general strike to shut down the entire city.
In a story published a week before his assassination, King told Jose Yglesias in the New York Times magazine, “In a sense you could say we are engaged in the class struggle.” The civil rights movement had not cost a dime, he said, but the movement to uproot poverty and inequality throughout the country would “be a long and difficult struggle, for our program calls for a redistribution of economic power.” Even as King recognized the need for a broader, multiracial struggle to successfully engage in a “radical revolution of values,” he still understood the dialectic connecting the black movement to a larger reckoning in the United States.
He was cut down before he could see the fulfillment of his new strategy in Memphis or in Washington, D.C., and the “interrelated flaws” of U.S. society have only intensified in the fifty years since King first invoked them. Indeed, the conditions warranting class struggle have become worse as the wealth within U.S. society has continued to accrue at the top. Yet King’s ability to name the elemental human suffering that is produced by our profit system, while simultaneously demonstrating the centrality of the black movement in unraveling its internal and external logic, remains a powerful political tool. This anniversary offers new opportunities to engage King’s political thought, including his anticapitalism and his repeated call for larger and deeper political struggle.